Sunday, May 23, 2010

** Follies of Hindu Denial

Follies of Hindu Denial
Vamsee Juluri

I wonder if the followers of any other faith in America have to live with the absurdity of hearing constantly that their religion does not exist. Add to that an irony: you see images from the religion that supposedly does not exist showing up everywhere, as ornaments, as New Age paraphernalia, and, insultingly, even on toilet seats. Worse, there's an exception to the general denial of your religion: when it does get talked about, it is only to get blamed as the sole cause of every evil in the land of your birth.

That is how it feels as a Hindu in America today, and that is the right context to see the debate between Dr. Aseem Shukla and Dr. Deepak Chopra.

The issue is not whether Hindus "own" Yoga as much as the growing denial of Hinduism in American media and intellectual culture. This denial exists in many forms; in bookstores, where we find shelves for Islam and Christianity but not for Hinduism, in academic writing, where the word Hindu is quote-marked into high degrees of concerned irony to imply that it is nothing more than a fabrication of fascist fundamentalists, and of course, in the booming new age culture of America where "Namastes" are heard but never the word "Hindu."

Thus ,, like many Hindus, I believe in the plurality of Hinduism and its basic belief that all faiths lead to God. But as an academic who studies the causes and consequences of media misrepresentation, I feel that there is a growing culture of Hindu denial. Curiously, this culture has found its sustenance from opposite ends of the American political-intellectual spectrum. Religious conservatives condemn Hinduism as paganism, much as the first colonizers did when they set forth to save us. But what is new is that enlightened New Age liberals, American and South Asian, shun its mention as if every person who identifies as Hindu is a fundamentalist.

The reasons for this response lie partly in recent Indian politics. For many Hindus, identifying as such was once unimportant and perhaps even un-Hindu. I grew up in India in the 1970s in a devout family and being Hindu was not a subject of conscious discussion. That began to change in the late 1980s. Hindu identity became important in daily life (in large part because of television) and in politics (it was a time of identity politics in general and religious identity, just like caste and regional or linguistic identity, entered the political mainstream). The ideas of Hindu nationalism spread through the Hindu middle-class imagination in India and abroad by the 1990s, and so did opposition to it. On American campuses too, students were often divided, calling themselves either "Hindu" student groups or "South Asian" groups. This polarization has become so widespread now that any debate about Hinduism turns into a single-issue fight about fundamentalism.

What these debates often forget is the American context. America sees the world sharply in terms of religious identity (unlike in India where other identities also matter). It saw more Hinduness in Indian immigrants than even we ever did, and not always kindly. Over the decades Hollywood and Washington had made Hindus synonymous in the American mind with Indiana Jones-style depravity. Hindu children faced this contempt in school, and in time took it upon themselves as Hindu Americans to set things right, the civil way at that. Unfortunately, they now face a misplaced backlash against fundamentalism that dismisses even legitimate efforts to address concerns about Hinduism as a misrepresented faith in America.

Many great Hindu spiritual leaders have, in the best spirit of their faith, rarely enjoined the use of the term "Hindu." However, we must also not unwittingly de-Hinduize them. It has become fashionable to "borrow" from one of Hinduism's many traditions and then disavow it altogether, as if Hinduism only refers to the residue of undesirable stuff that got added onto some pristine preexisting spiritual condition like the practice of Yoga. If one does not like Hindu politicization, commercialism, or superstition, by all means one may and indeed one must reject those specifically, for these are all undesirable features that can sully any faith. But it is neither accurate nor ethical to speak of Hinduism as a reality only when criticizing it while denying its existence altogether when enjoying or exploiting, as the case may be, its gifts of wisdom to the world.

Vamsee Juluri is Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of three books, "Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television" (Peter Lang, 2003), "The Mythologist: A Novel" (Penguin India, 2010) and "The Ideals of Indian Cinema" (Penguin India, 2011). He has written previously about Hindus and Hinduism in America for Hinduism Today and the Huffington Post.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

** Surrendering to America

Surrendering to America
Shobori Ganguli

When a Pakistani official lauds an Indian Prime Minister (in this case Mr Manmohan Singh) for his “vision” and welcomes the “legacy” he wants to leave behind, it is cause for grave worry.

Ahead of the meeting between Mr Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani in Thimpu last week, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the Indian Prime Minister is “a well-meaning individual, he has a vision, he wants to leave a legacy behind”. Surely, a vision that pleases a visibly and audibly intransigent Pakistan cannot be one that will particularly benefit India. Nevertheless, Mr Singh seems to be acquiring quite a fan-club across the border.

Apart from calling India’s dossiers of evidence against the 26/11 terror perpetrators pieces of fiction and refusing to display any meaningful action against terrorism emanating from its soil, Pakistan now says India’s linkage of talks and action against terror has “dragged too long” and that “nobody is buying that anymore”. Mr Qureshi is right. Apart from the Pakistanis themselves, now the Americans are not buying it. Hence the eminently avoidable Prime Ministerial-level meet in Thimpu.

One is perhaps unable to understand the logic underlying the current exchange between India and Pakistan but the subcontinent’s history says Pakistan’s intentions are not exactly well-meaning. Therefore, when senior Indian officials talk about a certain “chemistry” between Mr Singh and Mr Gilani or speak of how the latter “batted” for Mr Singh after the ignominious Sharm el-Sheikh meeting last July, citizens of this country need to know whether all that bonhomie is not actually compromising our national interest and security. Are all those virtues in our Prime Minister, so suddenly visible to the Pakistanis, or the mere chemistry between two individuals, on which Indian officials are pinning all their hopes, really geared to address India’s genuine concerns vis-à-vis Pakistan? Perhaps, Mr Singh is indeed on his way to creating a legacy: That of India’s abject surrender to those who bleed and terrorise its innocent civilians. Little else explains the Manmohan Singh Government’s inexplicable moves to keep the veneer of diplomacy with Pakistan on despite the latter emerging more recalcitrant after each dialogue initiative.

From the arrest of a Pakistani-origin man in the Times Square bombing attempt to a Pakistani who will be sentenced — hopefully, to death — in Mumbai today for the 26/11 attack, Pakistan’s footprints indeed span from Mumbai to Manhattan. While the United States may have its own set of reasons to humour such a Pakistan, there is no rationale whatsoever for India to repeatedly expose itself to Pakistani bluster. Incidentally, only two days after the Times Square incident, seven people are arrested in Pakistan; nearly two years after Mumbai, we are still sending across dossiers. From Yekaterinburg and Sharm el-Sheikh to New Delhi and now Thimpu, India is desperately trying to open a channel of dialogue with Pakistan that remains invisible to the other side. In fact, each attempt has seen the emergence of a more arrogant Pakistan. In theory, India’s approach cannot be faulted. It is seeking to adopt a step-by-step approach to get Pakistan to first deliver on the more specific cases relating to the Mumbai terror attack and then move on to the larger question of that country eliminating all terror camps operating from its soil. Fair enough. Had this approach borne even the minutest of results, one had reason to hope and be patient.

However, after officially stating that India has resumed dialogue only under intense American pressure, Pakistan has made it annoyingly clear after each interaction since 26/11 that the talks are a part of the composite dialogue process, that the two sides have decided to discuss Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek and water-sharing, issues that “concern both Pakistan and India”. After each official interaction, the Pakistanis have made their irritation with India’s repeated “harping” on Mumbai quite apparent. This, even as India continues to flood Pakistan with 26/11 dossiers; it now intends to send across a copy of Ajmal Kasab’s judgement along with fresh sets of evidence against the 20 others implicated, including masterminds Hafiz Saeed and Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, and seek their extradition — all a pointless exercise. While New Delhi has everything neatly figured out on paper, it is unable to read the complexities of the minds working in Islamabad. Miles away from worries of extradition, therefore, Saeed and Lakhvi brazenly continue their anti-India operations under the very nose — and active patronage — of Pakistani authorities.

What could possibly explain Pakistan’s continuing defiance, including its repeated posturing on the dialogue issue, its insistence that India, more than Pakistan, was desperate to resume talks, a charge New Delhi has sought to ignore rather than forcefully counter? Why is India remaining a mute spectator to the changing goalposts of its engagement with Pakistan that are being unilaterally shifted by the latter, particularly the recent clamour about India’s “water terrorism” that could become a “nuclear flashpoint”, a subject that has been appended to the Kashmir issue at various international fora by Pakistan in recent months? Is there even an iota of shift in Pakistan’s position, on Mumbai specifically and on terror in general, since Yekaterinburg last June which propels the hope that eventually Islamabad will fall in line?

Clearly, Pakistan’s nuisance value is what is fetching it international attention: It is a nuclear power that could press the button under the least of provocations from India. In the aftermath of 26/11 world capitals went into a spin, anticipating a military reply from India that could critically shift Pakistan’s focus from Afghanistan, apart from increasing the chances of a nuclear war. Given Mr Singh’s disposition no one need have worried. However, the spectre itself was enough to get the hotlines between Washington and New Delhi working. Talk to Pakistan, was the suggestion, even if the terms of engagement bring little benefit to India. Not one to displease, Mr Singh obliged, alternately shaking hands with the Pakistani President and Prime Minister in various corners of the world, Kodak moments that have suitably reassured US President Barack Obama.

Engagement is a sound principle in diplomacy and international strategy. However, such an exercise must visibly augment a country’s strategic worth and clout, particularly so in India’s case as it seeks its rightful place on the global stage. Unfortunately, this ongoing engagement with Pakistan, apart from exposing the Manmohan Singh Government’s helplessness against a petty neighbour, has also led to legitimate questions on whether, on its way to becoming a major world power, India has woefully surrendered to the American game in South Asia instead.